In common with some Trans-Siberian trains, this book was a long time coming; but just like the Rossiya service I took once from Moscow to Ulan-Ude and beyond, I found the wait worth the while.
Writing a novel, I have realised, is very like taking long journeys by rail: all the planning in the world can’t prepare you for what you’ll find along the way, whether it’s half-clad weightlifters sipping metallic samovar tea on the quivering bunk of a third-class platskartny carriage, or your own characters taking your breath away with some unexpected, yet organically true, act of daring or improvidence. And sometimes the destination isn’t an ending at all, but a beginning – not a packing up and putting away, but a shaking out and setting off towards new horizons, even if (like Olga Pushkin’s) those horizons perpetually recede before us.
When my wife Claire and I set out on our first Russian adventure in 2015, I was busily engaged upon quite another novel: a feminist retelling of the Faust legend from Goethe to Mann, set not in gothic Germany but Victorian Cambridge. And when we travelled again in Russia by rail, journeying from St Petersburg to the Silk Route and back again, I had the same Moleskine notebooks with me – polishing alchemical tales of England as the endless arid steppes of Central Asia undulated past the grimy, dust-spattered windows. The very last thing on my mind was a series of novels set in a small Siberian village called Roslazny.
But it was Olga Pushkin who came to mind, not Goethe’s troubled antihero, when the idea for the first book in the Trans-Siberian series flew into my head two years later, on the cusp of 2019. Walking my baby daughter to sleep in the dark on New Year’s Eve, I somehow saw a body falling to frozen earth and, standing by the tracks, an engineer coming out of her rail-side hut in bewilderment – and in that instant Olga was born. The morning after, I found an open café somewhere and dashed off the first paragraph: I sent it to Claire and my agent, Bill Goodall, receiving instant – and positive - responses. The first few pages, and then the first few chapters, flowed with astonishing ease, the narrative seeming to write itself, whilst Olga’s fellow Roslaznyans flooded onto my pages as if they’d just run, breathless, out of the Siberian taiga. I raced towards the finish as if I myself were reading it for the first time – and then, after typing the book’s final words, I paused, blinking, as if I’d stepped out upon an icy platform at journey’s end, plucked, all of a sudden, from the warm constraints, both fleeting and fixed, of a railway carriage.
Soon there came the thrilling news that Constable/Little, Brown – and specifically my editor, Krystyna Green – had loved the manuscript. And soon after that I was told there would be another book to write about Olga Pushkin, and another after that – just as the Trans-Mongolian line follows on from Ulan-Ude, and the Trans-Manchurian follows on from that, twin tracks of steel embracing a quarter of the globe.
It isn’t unusual for Trans-Siberian services to boast fifteen or more carriages. I can only hope for a series with as many books – and that this first of Olga’s adventures conveys something, at least, of the magic, wonder, and surprising grace of this unforgettable, seemingly endless journey.